Perhaps the surprising headline from our trip to New Zealand is that we didn’t think it was all that good.
We had a great time in our little campervan and there is no doubt that the country is visually beautiful almost everywhere. The problem with NZ is that everything is over priced, not expensive, just overpriced, it leaves a sour taste in your mouth and by the end of the trip I was getting more pleasure from avoiding the overpriced tourist traps than the pleasure I would have got from taking part. My use of the word “overpriced should be distinguished from expensive – expensive things cost a lot but might be worth it, overpriced things cost a lot but are not worth the price. We felt like we were being held to ransom everywhere we went, New Zealanders are experts at turning everyday happenings into tourist attractions. If there’s a bridge it will be jumped off, climbed up, abseiled down. If there’s a river it will be kayaked down , jet boated up, skylined over and fished in. Everything costs but it costs too much, and the longer we spent travelling around the country, the more we became critical of the latest attempts to prize the tourist dollar from our pockets.
Take for example a two hour steam boat cruise along the lake at Queenstown, (£30) a 1 hour ferry crossing to Stewart Island, (£75). What really irked me was reading the local free newspapers to see the same attractions overtly advertised at rates for locals! we weren’t going to be the wrong side of this two tier rip off and so rather than line a New Zealanders pocket, we decided to be savy about the trips and tours, choosing only to pay for things we couldn’t see or do anywhere else.
Whilst I’m at it and at the risk of generalising, we also found the New Zealand folk very serious, slightly blunt and with a laid back style that that became irritating, there’s a fine line between being laid back and not being bothered. We were surprised how isolated and sparsely populated the towns and roads were. It was usual to drive for miles between towns and see very few other vehicles on the roads. When you hit the next town, perhaps an hour or two later, you could drive through it five minutes before being back on the open road, what would you do if you lived here? It would drive me mad!
Since leaving NZ I’ve become a bit obsessed with understanding whether NZ is really all it’s cracked up to be, perhaps I had been spoilt by the value in South America? In a rather sad way, i’ve been scouring on-line expat websites which are full off stories about returning Brits who chased the good life only to realise that in reality NZ life can be a bit boring. One typical on-line poster remarked how he emigrated from the Scottish Highlands to find that most activities in NZ can be done at home and given the high cost of living, he decided to move back to Scotland.
Despite the above, we really did have a great time in our little mobile home. Here’s what we did on the South Island:
We arrived at Picton after a remarkably scenic crossing on the ferry across the Cooke Straight from Wellington. Ironically, the crossing was one of the cheapest (probably because New Zealanders have to do it) and best things we did. We saw dolphins and flying fish and the views of the crystal clear waters surrounding by lush green mountains were as good as we have seen. The cruise was brilliant and cost a fraction of the tourist traps referred to above such as Milford Sound.
From Picton we did a long drive to Christchurch stopping at a campground on the way which was graced by seals. We were able to park right on the sea adjacent to the rocks and I had a morning coffee watching the seals slumber in the early morning sun. We arrived in Christchurch to meet Tracy’s mum and Dad. They had made the long trip from Blighty to see us. Sadly their trip was a bit of a holiday horribilus. On the first day their campervan broke down on a particularly weathered mountain pass and then in the final week they were beset by a puncture. We did eventually manage to get off Arthur’s pass which links Christchurch with the West coast but it was bleak up there and the rain lashed with persistent ferocity. From there it was a few days journey South towards Fox Glacier. We enjoyed a walk to the Foot of the Glacier and spent the night at a brilliant DOC campsite adjacent to a lake. In the morning a low misty cloud hung to the lake parting only to reveal glorious views of the snow capped Mount Cooke in the background. Despite my negativity about NZ, some of the views were unsurpassed.
We eventually made Queenstown but it took many days to do the run down the West coast and wet weather followed bus most of the way. We were disappointed for Tracy’s mum and Dad who had limited time on the island and spent most of it engulfed in rain whilst driving long distances down a remotely populated West Coast. By Queenstown, save for the puncture, things were looking up.
Queenstown was great, it has everything, a lake, mountains, a hip and happening town with good shops, bars and restuarants, it even has a luge. We were grateful for Tracy’s dad taking us on the luge and later taking us on a boat trip across the lake. There is a fantastic burger bar in Queenstown called Ferg Burger, a rare place of value and a must visit if you are in those parts. In the evening as we sat in a bar, the ground swayed – an earthquake! We have experienced earthquakes in Peru, Manchester and even Grantham but this was really different, rather than a shake, the ground swayed from side to side, the Local folk at an adjacent table actually looked quiet worried but normal bar fun resumed as quickly as the quake passed.
We said goodbye to Tracy’s parents at Queenstown. A lmost two weeks had passed since their arrival and it was time for them to head back to Christchurch as we headed into the Deep South. I had registered for the Southland Marathon, part of the Southland Festival of Running. A report of the race will apear on my running blog but the best part was meeting New Zealand’s top ultra runner and marathon winner, Vajin Armstrong at the presentation. The race began in Riverton and ran to Invercargill on the South Coast. Being so far South enabled us to visit Bluff point the furthest South we will be on this trip and the scene of the Stewart Island ransom rip off! We milled around Invercargill for a few days ahead of the marathon. We had the most amazing fish and chips from Kings Fish Market. We’ve eaten our share of fish and chips but this was the best, finest blue cod fillet in a light tempura style batter served with chips, homemade coleslaw and black sauce that was similar to balsamic vinegar. It really was the best fish and chips we had eaten ever and the best part of all – it was a cheap, we had happened upon another Rare NZ bargain so we ate there again e next day.
The marathon passed painfully and then we travelled about 600 kilometres back to Christchurch stopping overnight at Dunedin and Timaru on the way. In Dunedin we visited the worlds steepest street and being into running I was thrilled to me Dave Kernahan, a local celebrity who runs up and down the street every day. a fascinating man to speak to, he even offered for us to park on his families rural estate that evening. The Japanese tourists stood nearby certainly looked at him suspiciously as he powered up the incline at pace wearing his headphones but I fully understood his need to run.
Timaru was a good place to spend the final nights before Christchurch. the free campsite was adjacent to a shipping port. It was a bit like a scene from Taggart but for some reason I liked it there. We had read that a short evening walk along the sea wall would yield results in the form of Blue Penguins and we weren’t disappointed. On the first night the small stocky birds appeared in the dark only feet away from the pedestrian footpath. the penguins looked Back at us as inquiringly as we gazed at them. Penguin pleasure got even better on the second night. I sat on the rocks and waited for the birds who arrive from the sea just after dusk. Not long after I had sat down, right before my eyes I saw the first two penguins climb through the silhouette of the sea and waddle up the wide, desolate sandy beach. The Penguins looked so vulnerable as they busily pottered, like two old men along the sand chuntering to each other as they went – amazing!
We arrived in Christchurch two days later. We were both surprised at how little progress has been made since the earthquakes of 2010/2011 The city centre is still decimated. Derelict buildings stand everywhere, business have been driven out to the districts – it was difficult to even find somewhere to eat. We couldn’t help but think that Christchurchers deserve a more speedy pace of recovery. Whilst we were in the city there was an evening function to recognise a public servant who had been instrumental in the recovery process, I couldn’t help but think it was a bit early for such festivities. There was a small, isolated area in the city called Christchurch Restart, a series of shipping containers that had been reclaimed to be used as temporary shops, bars and restaurants. It was the only part of inspired inventiveness that we witnessed in a city where the scale of devastation was much larger than we had anticipated.
We have now left New Zealand. I write from 35,000ft on the Virgin Austarlia Plane to Bali. We have just enjoyed five magical nights and days in Sydney – the Australians are doing it right. No doubt a more positive post will follow about that adventure but we have to write honestly and NZ, for us was bit overrated.